Manchester United are suffering from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad management in the worst year possible – Samuel Luckhurst


And then there were 27. Sending Anthony Martial on against West Ham not only extracted a stoppage-time winner in Manchester United’s biggest match of the season but also placed him in the shop window.

Martial’s swift loan to Sevilla, completed within 72 hours of his cameo, reduced United’s squad size to 28 players, now 27 with Amad hoping to flower in Scotland. United entered the January window with 28 players five years ago, only they had three goalkeepers then and now have four. The seldom-seen Lee Grant is barely worthy of a footnote but he is listed in the first-team section on the club website.

In 2017, United had the benefit of two players requesting transfers – Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay. That strengthened Jose Mourinho’s position to secure the signing of Benfica defender Victor Lindelof in January but complications over a sell-on clause owed to his former club Vasteras delayed the deal by five months.

Bastian Schweinsteiger then accepted Chicago Fire’s offer during the March internationals, much to his teammates’ chagrin. Schweinsteiger was popular in the dressing room and Mourinho regretted banishing him to the reserves, influenced by a senior United player’s withering assessment of Schweinsteiger’s rehabilitation the previous season.

Trimming the squad to 25 players – 22 of them outfielders – was a risk. In April, United had nine fixtures and on the first and last days of the month, Matty Willock and Scott McTominay were on the bench. In May, Willock, Matthew Olosunde and Demetri Mitchell had train tickets reserved from Stockport Station to Euston and were with the senior squad at Arsenal, where Axel Tuanzebe made his full debut and McTominay his debut.

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There is a fine line with squad management. This time last year, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had settled on a de facto core squad of 22 players, increased to 23 with the arrival of Amad from Atalanta. United never suffered an injury crisis akin to the spring of 2017 but Solskjaer ran several senior players into the ground and the ramifications were felt this season, culminating in his dismissal of him.

The core squad size is now 24 players. Dean Henderson nor Donny van de Beek have started in the Premier League since May and Jesse Lingard last lined up in the league for United on New Year’s Day in 2020.

It is still possible Lingard has played his last game for United, the club he joined aged seven and has spent three-quarters of his life with. As suspected, United have given rivals Tottenham and West Ham short shrift following inquiries and Newcastle have not yielded a proposed survival bonus.

United are pushing their luck with Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund-owned Newcastle. They are at risk of being left short-changed with Lingard because they failed to sell him in the summer, back when West Ham were not a rival and a £25million deal was eminently doable.

Tottenham accept a summer deal is more feasible, although Lingard is attracted by a move abroad. He is one of nine wantaways in the United squad and one of those certain of leaving in the summer.

Sevilla will hope Martial doesn't drop the ball amid their title challenge
Sevilla will hope Martial doesn’t drop the ball amid their title challenge

United have misread the room with their squad management, an unwanted legacy of Solskjaer’s soft approach. They have seemed ignorant of the fact it is a World Cup year, and the winter timing of the Qatar finals doubles the trouble as some players will want out in winter and summer windows.

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It is possible United could obtain fees for Dean Henderson, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Martial in the close season but not probable. In the seller’s market, United barely bother to erect a stall but the current squad situation is unmanageable.

Yesterday, Zidane Iqbal of Iraq and Uruguayan Facundo Pellistri became the 32nd and 33rd current United players to have played for their country. As the United authority Michael Crick noted: “An amazing stat but the sheer number of top players may help explain some of United’s current woes.”

United invested a combined £46million to sign Pellistri and Amad on deadline day in 2020 and neither are due to be deemed first team-ready until next season at the earliest. Solskjaer, as cogent a communicator as the 10 Downing Street spokesperson, contradicted Pellistri’s outlook on the Uruguayan’s future when they were just yards away from each other on the touchline at Derby in July.

Of those prepared to leave, Lingard, Martial, Van de Beek and Henderson are heavily influenced by the World Cup, all of them omitted from their national squads this season. Bailly is still a regular for the Ivory Coast and motivated by a lack of regular playing time at club level, while Cavani and Paul Pogba are all but assured of squad places in Qatar whatever their game-time between now and May.

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Martial’s absence is potentially offset by Hannibal Mejbri, expected to resume first-team training once Tunisia’s Africa Cup of Nations campaign has ended, while Shola Shoretire could take Amad’s place in the queue. And then there were 29.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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